Genes might have a say in your ability to navigate

February 2nd, 2010 - 1:08 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 2 (IANS) You are emerging from the subway and heading for your destination when you realise that you are going in the wrong direction. For a moment, you feel disoriented, but a scan of landmarks and the layout of the surroundings quickly helps you pinpoint your location, and you make it to your appointment with time to spare.
Until now, however, genes were not suspected of playing a role in that ability. A team led by Barbara Landau, professor in cognitive science at the Johns Hopkins University, for the first time, links genes to our ability to navigate the world.

“We found that people with a rare genetic disorder cannot use one of the very basic systems of navigation that is present in humans as early as 18 months and shared across a wide range of species,” Landau said.

“To our knowledge, this is the first evidence from human studies of a link between the missing genes and the system that we use to reorient ourselves in space.”

Working with Laura Lakusta of Montclair State University, New Jersey and co-author Banchiamlack Dessalegn, postdoctoral fellow at University of Chicago (both of whom did their doctorates at Johns Hopkins under Landau’s direction), Landau’s study involved people with a rare genetic disorder known as Williams syndrome.

Named for its discoverer, New Zealander JCP Williams, the syndrome is caused when a small amount of genetic material is missing from one human chromosome.

People with Williams syndrome are extremely social and verbally adept, but have difficulty with tasks such as assembling simple puzzles, copying basic patterns and navigating their bodies through the physical world. Williams syndrome occurs in one in 7,500 live births.

In the study, Landau’s team challenged people with Williams syndrome to watch while someone hid an object beneath a small cloth flap in one corner of a small rectangular room with four solid black walls that had no landmarks.

“They searched the room for the hidden object randomly, as if they had never before seen the overall geometry of the room or the lengths of the walls and their geometric - left and right - relation to each other,” Landau explained.

Control subjects (healthy college-aged students) responded more typically, searching for the object in one of the two geometrically equivalent corners, as has been found in studies by many other investigators, said a Johns Hopkins release.

The results provide another clue to the link between how genes work, how brains develop and become specialised and what can go wrong to result in very basic cognitive system malfunctioning, said Landau.

The study was published in this week’s online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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